Sunday, March 3, 2013

Students and Preparedness for Online Learning

Online learning is a hot topic these days, especially with the push for MOOCs and the (frequently problematic) courses pushed by Khan Academy.  As the tempest surrounding these new fangled ways to separate taxpayers and students from their money swells, we're also getting a slew of new research on student success rates in online education.  For someone who makes a living teaching online, the outlook is grim.

On one side we have snake oil salesmen like Khan, or the folks who think that a great rubric is all you need to teach students to grade each other's papers in a MOOC, and on the other folks like Florida Governor Rick Scott who not only want to sideline the humanities in favor of STEM education, but reduce the cost of education down to a mythical $10,000 Bachelor's degree.  You'd think that more online classes would be good for a guy like me, but it won't be if it gets dominated by "super-professors" who "teach" hundreds of thousands of students free of charge by creating never-changing video lectures and having the students grade their peers' work.  As if that could possibly be effective for any but the most self-disciplined, motivated, and diligent students. Oh, and they have to be properly prepared to read, write, and have a solid understanding of grammar before they start, which means that kids subjected to the ill-effects of NCLB will get left behind, as usual.

Despite the political and corporate push for online education, especially of the MOOC model, which aims to dispose of most of faculty at universities already facing rates of hiring too low to properly serve their students (there is a whole body of research discussing how adjuncts are not as effective as regular faculty due to the conditions they labor under), the evidence shows that for many students, online courses are a hindrance to academic success.  One huge problem with online courses is attrition, which is always high, but for large courses can reach 90%.  Even small online courses (like mine), which have only 25 students, have high drop rates.  I've seen attrition from 25-50% in the classes I've taught since 2005.

This question of attrition is a troubling one for educators and students alike.  The instructors at my institution recently received a reminder from an administrator that our drop rates remained too high, along with renewed guidance on maintaining "presence" in our courses in an effort to reduce attrition.  The idea is that the more we stay in contact with our students, the less likely it is that they will become detached from the course, that they will believe that we value them as individuals, and will stick with it.  To be honest, the activities requested of us are pretty low effort, so much so that I wonder if they really have an effect:

  • Make sure our names and contact information are prominently displayed.
  • Individualized responses to student introuctions.
  • Respond to introductions within 24 hours
  • Post in Discussions on three different days of the week
  • Acknowledge student learning or understanding of the material
  • Interact with the whole class
  • Ask questions that re-engage with the topic
  • Respond to student posts within 48 hours
  • Provide a discussion summary
That's really easy stuff.  We also have a requirement to return graded materials within 5 days of the due date.  When you have four classes going, that can be a challenge, especially in the 10-week sessions when we basically have an assignment due every single week for the core of the term.  In addition to all of this stuff, we're also piloting a system called Course Signals, which I've mentioned before, to help provide students a regular update on how they are doing in the class.  Course Signals is an application that integrates with our course management system to check student grades and cross-reference it with their activity in the course.  That provides a combination of grades and effort that places students into graduated categories of risk.  When I send out a signal (at least three times per semester by design), it provides a visual cue on the student login page (red, yellow, and green) and sends them an email (to catch those who don't bother to login).  The idea is to help keep students on track with the course - the email portion of the reminder is designed to get their attention.  By reminding them that they need to be active, the hope is that student success rates will improve.

That brings up another important issue related to students and online courses.  They don't work as well for those students who don't already have great language skills, self-discipline, or are generally less-prepared for college.  The research shows that community college students that take lots of online courses are less likely to finish school or transfer to a four-year institution.  They are also more likely to drop classes or to fail them.  Those students that just scrape by in a traditional class seem to disappear completely when they try online education.  Can you imagine what happens to the students who need remedial coursework before getting into the credit-earning classes?  Should schools allow them into online courses before they show that they can succeed in the traditional model?  An interesting side not to all of this research is that students in hybrid classes that combine a few course meetings with a majority of online work seem to perform as well as those in the traditional classes.  That really calls into question the whole concept of MOOC courses, doesn't it?

Ok, so now I seem like a bit of a hypocrite for teaching online courses, don't I?  Maybe. But, the fact is that I believe that online courses can work for many students.  Indeed, they have worked for me since my degrees at SHSU and FSU featured large online components.  The difference, of course, was that I was highly motivated and had good language and computer skills when I started.  I think that the model of courses where students login at the time of day that works for them, and only interacts with other students or the faculty in written discussions may not be the best for many of our students.  The model we used at FSU in the College of Information may work better - we signed into the course at a set time every week for symmetric discussions and lectures.  The lectures were sometimes text-only chats, sometimes used Second Life, or used interactive classrooms that featured audio, video, and desktop sharing technology.  That model certainly wasn't as flexible as the more "traditional" text-only style of online course, but I'm pretty sure it would be more successful for the students. My experience at FSU isn't directly related since it was a professional program, but my experiments in using Elluminate with my students a few times each semester so they could ask questions and provide feedback seems to help keep them engaged since they can hear my voice and feel like they get to know me.

Most of this is already floating around in the media and the blogosphere, but my experiences this semester really have me thinking about it.  I'm not sure why, but the past few semesters, it increasingly seems like my students are less and less prepared to function in class.  This isn't just limited to language skills or dedication, but even in their technology skills.  Many of these "born digital" students don't know what a file type is, or how to use basic word processor functions.  They seem increasingly unable to identify good sources of information (to the point that we now have dedicated assignments on using online library tools and finding sources).  This semester, I've had six of seven students not able (or willing) to read the course content to identify the textbook, course schedule, or find the assignment instructions.  I had to walk one student through the process on the phone - she was able to find my phone number, but not click the link below it to find the textbook, or two more below that to see the course schedule.  I'm not sure why, but this crop of students seems to need or want more handholding and instant gratification on grading than those only a year or two ago, and I'm wondering if we're increasingly pushing those borderline students into the wrong types of classes in order to handle more students with fewer resources.

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